Pop Rocks: R.E.M. -- They Got There from Here

So terribly, terribly young.
So terribly, terribly young.

News of R.E.M.'s demise yesterday wasn't so much greatly exaggerated as it was endlessly propagated. I follow less than 100 people on Twitter and I'd conservatively estimate 500 of them made some mention of it. Quite a reaction to what has to be one of the most understated band break-ups of all time:

"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."

No farewell tour. No final gig. No giant omnibus CD reissues (though a "greatest hits" retrospective will be coming in November). Mick Jagger and Gene Simmons probably had to be defibrillated when they heard.

Among those who felt compelled to comment, it was a more or less even split between folks with fond remembrances of how R.E.M.'s music affected them and those making jokes that stuck pretty close to the "and I thought they broke up 15 years ago" punchline.

Count me somewhere in the middle. In high school and college, R.E.M. was one of my top 5 bands, as Rob Gordon might put it. Their 1980s catalog is a body of work I'd put up against just about any other artist's, and while the band and I grew apart as the `90s wore on, I still have a great deal of affection for their music, which plays a big part in the soundtrack of my adolescence and early adulthood.

Here are a few examples.

5. A Reckoning In "Little America" Like most red-blooded American youth, I did my time at McDonald's in high school. My fellow miscreants referred to the place as "Ronnie's Joint" in a hipper-than-thou (and unsuccessful) attempt to distance ourselves from the employees who gleefully dubbed it "Mickey D's." During the summer of 1984, I spent many long shifts at the Ronnie's Joint on Southwest Parkway and Texas Avenue in College Station, taking meal and coffee/smoke/soda breaks in a tiny room in the back, with nothing but 1970s vintage training literature and an old cassette deck for company. I have no idea who left the tape of Reckoning back there, probably one of the college student supervisors who, upon obtaining their degree in fine arts, fled to New York City and certain stardom.

I must have listened to that tape 50 times that summer, pondering the meaning of "Harborcoat" and "Pretty Persuasion" (and wondering what the hell Stipe was saying in "So. Central Rain"). It was my first exposure to R.E.M., and Reckoning remains in my regular rotation.

4. It's All Part of Lifes Rich Pageant If Reckoning was my gateway drug to R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction was my first bump of cocaine, and Lifes Rich Pageant was that first sweet spike of heroin. Holy shit, "Begin the Begin?" Going into "These Days?" And then fucking "I Believe?" I got the album for Christmas in 1986 and it didn't leave my record player for three months. As much as I loved Fables, I occasionally tired of its murkier tracks. But Pageant was like the musical version of George C. Scott's speech from Patton: it held me by the nose and kicked me in the ass.

3. "Welcome to the Occupation" My freshman year of college at UT, the week before Thanksgiving week, I had the option of either seeing Pink Floyd at the Erwin Center on that Friday, or seeing R.E.M. on the "Work Tour" (supporting Document) Thursday in College Station and then U2 on Sunday back in Austin. I might have the dates wrong, because that makes it sound like I could've seen all three...I think it may have been because my then-girlfriend didn't want to see Floyd. And I dated her for a year? Jesus.

Yeah, College Station. R.E.M. apparently had a bad experience in Austin earlier in the '80s and so the closest they'd get was Aggieland or San Antonio. This was the origin of the "Please do not rush the stage as Peter does not like it" slide they used to play in their pre-concert audio/visual display. They played G. Rollie White Auditorium (pre-renovation firetrap version) on a Thursday night. If there were 2,000 people in the arena, I'll eat my copy of It Crawled from the South. It's probably why Stipe didn't get lynched after saying, "If you're in the military, quit. Now."

 

2. Out of Time. Literally

R.E.M. released their seventh album during my extended senior year at UT. My friend Bo and I picked up our copies the same day, at the beginning of spring break, 1991. Several of us were in the habit of going camping during the weeklong hiatus, not because we were rugged outdoorsmen or anything, but because we usually lacked the funding and motivation to go to Padre or Florida. To this day, I still prefer sitting in a quiet forest, enjoying the growing dusk after a day of hiking and fishing. And while I never entirely warmed up to the album (guest singers? Quelle horreur!), songs like "Half a World Away" offered a nice backdrop to a week on Lake Travis.

1. "Sweetness Follows"

Automatic for the People is the most recent R.E.M. album I play with any regularity. I remember my then-fiancee/now-wife listening to it a great deal in the months before I left for Washington, DC to attend grad school, and I still consider it one of their best efforts. Before too long, I'd be in school (again) and dicking around with this newfangled thing called the "Internet," where one of the first "newsgroups" I joined was called rec.arts.music.rem (alt.music.* was the preferred format, which caused a great deal of consternation). But even then, I never got into Monster, and stopped following the band so much.

So yeah, I haven't been a very avid listener since the late '90s, or seen them live since...1989. I wish Messrs Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe nothing but the best. You guys were a huge part of my youth. Hope you find that river.


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